Scientists who study the Arctic say they’re worried that nations meeting this week to set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions aren’t adequately considering how much carbon dioxide and methane could be released from the world’s rapidly thawing permafrost.
Researchers have known the permafrost is warming for some time, but they’ve only recently begun to accurately measure just how much carbon is in the Earth’s frozen regions. And they’re only beginning to understand the consequences of such unanticipated greenhouse gas emissions, which weren’t factored into the manmade emissions targets world leaders are considering this week at the United Nations climate talks in Doha, Qatar.
Permafrost, ground that stays frozen for at least two years in a row, stores vast amounts of decayed plant matter. As the Earth warms, that frozen organic matter thaws and is released in the former of carbon dioxide or, more troublingly, methane. Global warming is creating a feedback loop – as the Earth warms, higher temperatures put the permafrost at greater risk. And melting permafrost releases the very greenhouse gases that contribute to the Earth’s warming.
As they learn more about the carbon in permafrost, scientists say the possible emissions must be factored into climate talks. A report issued this week by the U.N. Environment Program urges the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess the impact of permafrost carbon dioxide and methane emissions. The report relies heavily on research done in Alaska by scientists with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"The message is that policymakers have to be aware of the possible consequences of an already changing world," said Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "And these kinds of concerns should be included in any kind of further plans to mitigate and adapt to these changes. We need to know more about any changes in permafrost in a more robust way to have good information to build our decisions."
Their research shows that the Earth’s permafrost contains 1,700 gigatons of carbon as frozen organic matter. That’s twice the carbon currently in the atmosphere.
"Permafrost is one of the keys to the planet’s future, because it contains large stores of frozen organic matter that, if thawed and released into the atmosphere, would amplify current global warming and propel us to a warmer world," Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said in a news release. "Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long."
The report also recommended that nations with extensive permafrost – the United States, Canada, China and Russia – create national monitoring networks and make plans to mitigate the risks of thawing permafrost.
"The infrastructure we have now is not adequate to monitor future changes in permafrost," Kevin Schaefer, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and the report’s lead author, said in a news release. "We need to greatly expand our current networks to monitor permafrost, which requires direct investment of money and resources by individual countries."
Policymakers also will need to plan to protect communities in the most vulnerable regions, Schaefer said, because thawing permafrost has consequences beyond the unexpected emissions that are warming the Earth.
Homes, businesses, roads and oil and gas infrastructure in Alaska and other parts of the far north were built on ground that stayed frozen. If the ground thaws, it could collapse. Already, some villages in Alaska have had to contend with the changing conditions.